To get to my grandparents’ farm, you had to turn down an old country road that stood on the outskirts of town and drive down it for a couple of miles. From there, you would come to a fork in the road, and your options were to either continue on the paved road, or turn left and take a narrower, rougher one. You would need to choose the latter, and your tires would crunch on the white gravel for about another mile more before the small, yellow farmhouse would appear around the bend, beacon-like and protected by the massive trees in the yard.
My summers there have, in a way, shaped all that I am. Time moves differently in a small town. (And it is a town in every sense of the word; it’s become more modern, but reluctantly.) There were storms that rolled across the sky, rumbling and fierce, but somehow the sheer expanse of the sky dulled the threat and made it a wonder. There were breakfasts that would make health nuts clutch their collars; eggs and bacon and pancakes, that you could eat your fill of and then some, because you were always on the move and there was always something to do, so the calories felt justified.
There were calves, because my grandparents raised cattle. I loved them, their soft eyes and pink noses, and I loved giving them bottles and learning their names. There was corn to pull off the stalks when it was ripe, and you could smell it; the sweet kernels, the deep scent of the good and honest earth. You knew there would be fresh corn to go with dinner that night, and the leftover cobs and husks went to the cows as a treat. There were haylofts to explore and barn cats to chase. There were warm summer nights spent on the back porch while the insects sang in an ensemble.
There was healing. I went up there, shortly after a rough breakup, and stood in the twilight, watching the cows. I was then just turning into a young woman, and it was not lost on me that I had first looked out on the fields as a child, and they were the same but I was not. A chorus of howls startled me from my thoughts, and I saw a trio of coyotes, running along the fields. I was nervous for the cows, but the coyotes ran by them, back and forth in a line, howling and yipping for the sheer joy of it. It was dark by the time they stopped, and I went back into the farmhouse, renewed.
I was so familiar with the rooms, their layout and furnishings, that I could close my eyes and tour them in my mind. They formed a cozy labyrinth of the best days of my life.
I pretended not to notice as talk of selling the farm went from a passing comment to a real transaction with the neighbor across the road. I hated him for coming along and smiling widely at my grandparents and stealing our history away. I hated that my grandparents were getting older and it was safer for them to live in town, in case something happened.
I hated that I understood all of this, and knew deep down that their neighbor wasn’t a villain, because inside my heart, next to my adult-thoughts, a small girl sulked and cried. I didn’t know how to help her.
Our last Christmas there was a good one. Mike hadn’t proposed to me yet, but it was coming, and we all sensed it. He slept on the spare mattress in the living room while I had coffee with my grandparents and Mom. I kept looking at everything. Their faces, the knickknacks, the photographs. I wanted to stamp it into my brain. I didn’t want to face the bare walls and cabinets. It felt like something was being packed away that would be lost.
My husband and I drove up for a visit a couple months ago, and we had to pass by the old turnoff on our way to their new house. It felt wrong to not continue down to the gravel road.
A house is merely a vessel that contains the love of the people inside it. My grandparents are still my grandparents, and their love follows me no matter where they live. But surely, the years and memories have sunk into the farmhouse walls over the years, and some part of them still remains. That’s the only explanation I can find.
That has to be the reason why my heart felt like it was breaking as we drove past and left the turnoff in our rear view mirror.